"I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House" isn't the most frightening horror movie of the year, but it might be the saddest. The new film by Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony, "Psycho's" Norman Bates) is a quieter sort of ghost story, one that finds more meaning in the hushed creepiness of being alone in a house than in the things that go bump in the night, and one with a sorrowful inevitability permeating that quiet. Perkins' second film (after the still-unreleased "The Blackcoat's Daughter") shows a singular sensibility at work, one worth watching in the coming years.
Ruth Wilson stars as Lily, a live-in nurse tasked to take care of ailing horror novelist Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) in her home until her death. With the exception of rare interactions with the near-silent Blum and her estate manager (a dry Bob Balaban), Lily is left to her own devices, babbling to herself to calm her nerves as she notices strange occurrences and begins to suspect Blum's most famous novel is based on a real murder in the same house.
Though Lily doesn't confirm the supernatural suspicions until late in the film, Perkins opens the film with a hazy view of a woman in Victorian garb lingering in the background, out of perfect sight but easy to confirm, distant but present. It sets a melancholy tone early on, one that suggests what's frightening and alien to us is lonely for lost souls, who are set to wander, to leave traces without ever being fully engaged.
That applies, also, to the dying Blum (Prentiss is very good as a dementia-stricken woman who addresses her nurse by the name of the ghost) and Lily, whose haunted, literary narration intones early on that she, too, is doomed. "Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29." Perkins' camera lingers in the hall as Wilson stares into the camera enigmatically, her voice from beyond the grave addressing us simultaneously, but with enough disjunction for us to question what the Lily of the past may already subconsciously sense. Perkins gets the most out of those uncanny moments, ones that blur the lines between life, death, and afterlife as three women from different stages occupy the same space.
Perkins does get in some good traditional scares: An early set-piece involving an old rotary phone wire builds slowly to a jolt, as do surprise appearances of the ghost (and of the ghostly Iris). But much of the film lies on the shoulders of Wilson, giving a terrific, difficult to pin down performance as a woman whose chattering, friendly but distant stares and winnowy gestures seem pitched halfway between a slightly odd woman trying to occupy herself/stave off her fears and a psychologically unraveling, like a Gothic heroine living uncomfortably in the modern day. The loneliness, the creaky old house and the air of dread get to her, but from the beginning, she seems ineffably drawn to death.
"Pretty Thing" sustains such a rich mood that it nearly doesn't matter that it feels overextended even at a spare 87 minutes. The mystery of what actually happened to the woman in Blum's house/novel never fully engages, and the heroine's meandering seeps into the film by the end. Even so, the film has a unique eeriness to it, as well as an empathetic tone. There's pity here for spirits and bodies, for the soon-to-end lives and the ones that already ended too soon, and those that are strangely, inexplicably in-between.
"I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House" is now streaming on Netflix Instant.